Pushing Back: Reporter Patrick Strickland on Europe’s Violent Borders
"When you allow the right to asylum to be chipped away, you’re not just doing it to other people. You’re doing it to yourself, too."
Once again, the right-wing threat narrative of “invasion” and “chaos” dominated the headlines and airwaves as Title 42 was finally lifted on May 11. Despite dire predictions of the end of America by Fox News and others stoking fear for maximum profit and viewer ratings, border communities reported that the end of Title 42 was orderly even “calm and peaceful” as the local news outlet El Paso Matters, characterized the scene at the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez border. In the coming weeks, Todd who was attending the Border Security Expo in El Paso, as Title 42 was winding down last week, will have reporting and analysis about what to expect after Title 42, and a preview of what’s on the horizon for the multi-billion dollar border security business, which continues to grow no matter who’s in the White House.
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Journalists Patrick Strickland and Fahrinisa Campana met in 2016 while reporting on refugees and migration in southern Europe. Frustrated by the lack of in-depth investigative reporting on border issues, the two freelance journalists founded their own nonprofit magazine in 2022 called Long Road Magazine. In November, Strickland interviewed me about “border theater” in the U.S., and since I was in Greece last week (for my new editing job with Lighthouse Reports), I met up with Strickland near his apartment in Athens to talk about Long Road’s coverage of borders around the globe and why Americans should be paying closer attention to what’s happening abroad. (Campana was on a reporting trip and couldn’t participate in the interview.) Strickland, who is originally from Texas, has been reporting in Europe and the Middle East for more than a decade. He’s written two books: Alerta! Alerta! Snapshots of Europe’s Anti-fascist Struggle (AK Press, 2018) and The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands (Melville House, 2022). You can listen to my interview with Strickland about his last book The Marauders on our podcast. I highly recommend it!
The goal of Long Road Magazine is very ambitious. You’re covering borders all over the world. Is that right? And what does it mean to cover borders, exactly?
So far, we’ve had a couple of stories about Greece, and one from Sicily. We have one coming about Bulgaria. There’s stuff in the works from Ukraine. Fahrinisa did a story from northern Iraq—our first—about cross-border rescue missions to bring back girls who had been kidnapped by ISIS. We’re hoping next year to have stories from Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia.
When we started this, we were adamant that we wanted to work with writers who really know the place and the issue that they’re writing about. That said, you know, we have a looser idea of what constitutes border coverage. It can be anything from migration to poverty in border communities or territorial disputes, or crackdowns on humanitarians, like we had here in Greece.
But typically, it’s more than just a migration story?
Yes, we hope to keep thinking about it in different ways about what would make a border story. For instance, we have a story in the works on Ukraine that is not a migration story. It’s about how the country’s borders are essentially being redrawn. We’re thinking a lot about these different ways to consider what a border means, what it is, and how it moves and sometimes follows people.
That’s an interesting idea. When you say a border can follow people, what do you mean?
In my first story for Long Road, I wrote about an Afghan man who had come to Athens 20 years ago. He was beaten up in a park by a group of nationalists with flagpoles. In a sense the border had followed him here to Athens. They targeted him because he had crossed the border. This man who survived the beating, Yonous Muhammadi, is now one of the most prominent refugee advocates in Greece. He even ran for European parliament. A great individual. For years he distributed a map showing other refugees where it was safe to go in Athens. The unsafe areas would have red Xs on them. He modeled that map on the same one he used in Afghanistan to know where it was safe to go or not regarding the Taliban.
I wonder, has that map changed? Are there places that refugees still can’t go, even now?
We seem to be in a different phase now. The Far Right is still active, and there’s still anti-migrant violence. There were a few dozen incidents last year. But now the situation is different because the government has the same ideas the vigilantes in the streets once had. They don’t need a mob in the neighborhood square because they have the Coast Guard.
Is that happening all over Europe and in different places? Are you seeing a rise in authoritarianism and government’s embracing anti-immigrant sentiment?
Yes, I think it’s happening in a lot of places. For several years now, we’ve seen the rise of the Far Right in different parts of Europe. There’s Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the far-right AfD party in Germany, and there are similar movements in Austria, Sweden, and the UK. But this is also not just happening in Europe. There’s a massive xenophobic, violent movement against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. And in the last few months there’s been a wave of anti-Black violence in Tunisia.
What is driving the anti-migrant sentiment? Has it been slowly building for some time, and is it accelerating now?
It’s different from place to place. In Lebanon, you have the total collapse of the economy and inflation on a level that we’ve never imagined. But at the same time, there’s a long history in Lebanon of displaced people, such as Palestinians. And people cynically exploit that for their own gains, and they want someone to blame. In Greece they like to blame Syrian refugees. But a [neo-Nazi] group like Golden Dawn began in the 1980s, long before the Syrian exodus. Greece for years has had Pakistani workers who would come and work in the agricultural fields. So, what’s driving the anti-immigrant sentiment? It’s something that people on the Far Right knew they could win on because no one offered the general public a better alternative. In the U.S., it’s not like the Democrats are saying, “No, we should take more people. And here’s why.” It happens everywhere, for instance when the leftist Syriza party came to power in Greece. They had campaigned in part on reforming the immigration system and making it more just, and then they very quickly caved to forcing people to stay on the islands until they reached a certain point in their asylum application. This created terrible conditions on the islands and turned people there against the migrants because they felt like they were taking in huge numbers that the rest of the country didn’t have to bear. They felt like they’d been abandoned.
You’ve been writing about far-right movements for some years now. When did you first start tracking the Far Right?
I had been working in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia, kind of all over the Middle East, from 2011 to 2015. In 2015, I first came to Greece, during the first major part of what was then called the “refugee crisis.” That year, at least a million people came to Europe over the Mediterranean and by land. I reported in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Germany, and Slovakia, and all along the pit stops on the refugee trail, heading west. At the same time, there were anti-refugee political parties making gains, especially in Germany. It was scary to see that level of xenophobia.
I also began writing about the Golden Dawn. In Greece, there were attacks on refugees. But there was also solidarity and people who stood with the refugees and prevented attacks. And I thought that was really interesting. This was only two years after a couple of guys affiliated with Golden Dawn had killed a Pakistani migrant in Athens, and then nine months later killed a left-wing rapper. The thing that really made me interested in Greece is that there was such a clear and obvious way to explain that the same people who went after Greeks with whom they disagreed with politically were the same people targeting migrants and refugees.
You grew up in Texas. Are far-right movements in Europe similar to those in the United States?
There are a lot of overlaps, with the border violence too. In 2020 there were about 14,000 people—Syrians, Iranians, and Afghans, among others—gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in the north. I noticed there were vigilante groups doing patrols, which was interesting because I had been going to Arizona at the time to report on the militias there for my book The Marauders. So to see them crop up in Greece really clarified for me how those sorts of vigilante groups can form. The members were far-right people and nationalists who viewed migration as an invasion, which is similar to what happens in the U.S. People with these mindsets are the same everywhere. The only thing different is that they didn’t have guns, as they do in the U.S.
In Texas, Republicans are trying to pass legislation that would deputize civilians to hunt down and apprehend undocumented people in so-called Border Protection Units, which would be a state-sanctioned form of vigilantism. Have you seen something similar in Europe?
In 2015, I went to this village in Hungary on the border with Serbia. And the local mayor was an ultranationalist, far-right guy, and he had deputized a bunch of people in his village to do these border patrols and catch migrants. They would catch refugees and migrants, then pose with them in really demeaning ways. They would handcuff them and grab them by the hair and take a photo and put it on Facebook. And they’d write things like “We stopped five people overnight who were part of the invasion” or whatever. To think back now that this was eight years ago is shocking, because it’s gotten so much worse. I mean, a few years ago, there were similar groups in Bulgaria on their border with Turkey. And then, like I said, we saw him in 2020, on the border in Greece. And, of course, there’s a much longer tradition of this in the U.S.
These vigilante groups are emboldened by elected officials, right? Because it gives them carte blanche to do these kinds of things.
Members of Golden Dawn hunted migrants in open-air markets and neighborhoods heavily populated with migrants. They didn’t do it solely on their own. The prime minister at the time talked about cleaning the country of immigrants. It’s the same with Governor Greg Abbott in Texas. He might not explicitly call for violence, you know, “pick up your gun.” But he says it without saying it, right?
In Europe, they often use the word “pushback” to refer to migrants who are sent back across the border. How does that compare to what’s happening in the U.S.?
A pushback is essentially an extrajudicial expulsion, meaning that somebody has come in and they were not allowed to request asylum—a right guaranteed by European law, and international law, which in theory should also be guaranteed in the U.S. It’s happening en masse here in Europe. I just got back from Bulgaria, where there were more than 5,200 pushbacks, affecting more than 87,000 people. Every person I spoke to had been pushed back multiple times. And they don’t just detain them. They strip them and beat them. They take their money, their cell phones, their documents, then push them back across the border. This is happening in Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary and Croatia, especially since 2020, and on an industrial scale as part of the European Union’s external borders. Just like it was formalized on the U.S. border with Title 42. In the U.S., we as a society don’t think of asking for protection as a human right.
Yes, I always hear people say, “Well, they came to the border illegally,” but it’s not illegal to request asylum. And all these people who are stuck in limbo. Isn’t it just enriching organized crime?
Organized crime is benefiting immensely from these beefed-up border measures, because people can’t cross on their own. The same happens in the U.S. The smuggling networks get stronger in places where there’s mass pushbacks, because people are desperate and depend on these criminal groups to cross. It puts a lot of money in the pockets of criminals.
What’s the most common reason people give for migrating?
Everybody’s got a different reason. Some left because of war, like Syria, which has been decimated since 2011. For others, it’s primarily economic. I was recently speaking with some guys in Bulgaria, and they were telling me, “There’s no work, we don’t have any electricity, we hardly get water,” and so on. Others are fleeing violence. Climate change is also fueling migration from a lot of places, like Bangladesh, for instance, or parts of Iraq. It also overlaps at the same time with political instability and economic collapse. I’m certainly no expert on climate change, but I’m sure that the number of people migrating because of it will continue to increase.
And there’s a big danger with the growing number of pushbacks, which is really something we’re at risk of seeing in the U.S. Somebody can get pushed back across three, four, or five borders, and get beaten and robbed along the way. They’re illegally deported back across every one of those borders until they’re back in the country they fled.
Violence is part and parcel of what a border is, because its very premise is that the land belongs to some people and not to others. There’s been a lot of research in the last couple decades about how border measures and visa regimes constitute a form of global apartheid. As Americans, we have to pay attention to what’s happening with pushbacks and the dismantling of asylum. Because someday the U.S. passport might not be worth so much. A European passport might not either. And when you allow the right to asylum to be chipped away, you’re not just doing it to other people. You’re doing it to yourself too. Because maybe one day, you’ll have to walk across a line. And you’ll get pushed back across, even though you asked for help.
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